“We tried to keep it secret but people always find out where the rugby league players are.”
That comment from a teacher at Boreboa Elementary School in Port Moresby, after hundreds of students mobbed Canterbury players who had just visited the school and ran after them as they left in a mini-bus, summed up the passion for the sport in Papua New Guinea.
Tickets for Saturday’s NRL trial between the Bulldogs and Sharks are selling like hot-cakes, despite a seat in the covered grandstand costing more than one week’s wages, while the players are treated like rock stars wherever they go.
There were far more people at the school on Friday and the scenes were similar when Cronulla players visited Hagara Primary School.
Driving anywhere is an exercise in logistical planning as a police escort is required, as much to prevent fans – children and adults alike – from running out on to the road as the team bus approaches, as for the protection of the players.
Driving in a convoy with the Cronulla players and staff for training at the National Football Stadium on Friday, the roadside was lined with fans waving at the buses or holding up posters and banners.
In parks everywhere, boys and girls play touch and tackle on fields as hard as concrete
Few of the players have been to Papua New Guinea before but the reception they have received has lived up to the stories they have heard from the likes of Sharks international Josh Dugan or Bulldogs captain Josh Jackson.
Canterbury GM of football Steve Price’s experience in PNG goes back further to the period when tear gas was often used by police to stop fans outside the stadium trying to force their way in to watch the Australians play.
Those days are thankfully gone and the 15,000 National Football Stadium has facilities the likes of Manly and Cronulla could only wish for.
However, the fanaticism for the game in Papua New Guinea has not changed, as Bulldogs players learned during the school visit.
“At Boreboa School, I know that some of the students are playing rugby, some of them have posters of you in their bedrooms. Your posters are everywhere, you are famous everywhere. We love you,” the school principle said.
She then asked the packed school assembly: “Tell them, do we love them?”.
The students replied with a loud and resounding, “Yes”.
The pre-season trial is the first time the NRL has hosted a trial match in Port Moresby and while in Papua New Guinea, the players are promoting Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) programs targeting social inclusion, participation, equality and health and well-being.
Bulldogs captain Josh Jackson was asked by a student what motivates him to play rugby league.
“I have played rugby league since I was a little, little boy, I always play because I love keeping active and being around my friends, being able to train with my friends and keeping healthy,” Jackson said.
“I am very lucky I can do that every day, and come to training every day alongside all of my great mates here at the Bulldogs.
“If you want to become a Hunters or Kumuls player, make sure you listen to your teachers and take care of yourself.”
The Canterbury players presented the school with a bag of rugby league balls before received a guard of honour to their bus.
It was then that they were mobbed and as their bus attempted to leave hundreds of people chased after it.
“It’s good for the game, you can just see how much they love it up here,” Jackson said. “You don’t get that in Australia so it is fantastic to see.”
Sharks players, including Dugan, Sione Katoa, Jackson Ferris and Lorenzo Mulitalo, delivered 2,500 solar lights to students at Hagara Primary School as many households in the village of Hanuabada don’t have access to the electricity grid.
The visit was organised through the club’s connection with the Australian NGO KTF (Kokoda Track Foundation).